Belhar Part III: Is Reformed Theology Bad News for the Poor?

“Belhar’s relevance is not confined to Southern Africa. It addresses three key issues of concern to all churches: unity of the church and unity among all people, reconciliation within church and society, and God’s justice.”
~ From The Belhar Confession’s Prologue

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be talking about The Belhar Confession.



I spend a lot of my time – a lot of my time – with “the poor”. Not the poor of spirit, the real poor – homeless folks, folks with mental illness, folks with cell phones provided by the government who take the ambulance to the ER for basic colds because they don’t want to walk to the hospital and they know they’ll never have to pay for it.

So I get how they think – in fact I think, in some backwards-discipleship way, I’ve become one of them. I understand scarcity mentality, survivalist mode, covering your pain with substances and getting used your own stench (figuratively & literally – on any given day, my office could smell like pot, alcohol, B.O. or some combination of those).

What most of the poor I know don’t get is Reformed theology. Because, let’s face it – it’s a theology written by middle-to-upper class people for middle-to-upper class people. Live out your faith in the place God has placed you, God has sovereign direction over your life, a theology of gratitude, a theology for the thinking man – these are not easy sells in the lower class.

The very poor are an upwardly-mobile people by nature. To be anything else would be too depressing to bear. You can only take “redeeming your square inch” so far when your square inch is where you sit in your own filth and beg.

And so I think, in truth, that Reformed theology is an awkward fit for people whose lives suck.

Think about those places where Reformed theology has thrived historically: Western Europe, South Africa, North America, Eastern Asia – places where, relatively speaking, people are pretty well-off. But where has it not? Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe – desperate places with significant portions of the population fighting for survival. What theology flies there? Pentacostalism, Catholicism, Mormonism.

This is why I love the Belhar Confession.

182288_151766908214048_3940464_nOut of the conflict of the haves & have-nots in South Africa, a theology was forged with Reformed roots that is accessible to those who have not yet arrived. Much of it necessitates action on the part of the confessor. It paints a picture of a fractured society and what must be done to put that society back together. More than any of the older Reformed Confessions (Heidelberg, Belgic, Dort) it has a relational element to it – and there’s a reason for that:

The Belhar Confession is forged through human conflict rather than intellectual conflict.

And that’s why the rest of our confessions are so inaccessible to many of my people. It’s not that they’re not smart enough to grapple with the finer points of Calvinism – it’s that they don’t have the luxuries of expendable time/energy/brain space for all of that. They’re in a struggle to survive. Intellectual argumentation is a luxury good and, as such, may never be accessed by the very poor. But as they struggle for survival, as they work through desperation, as they seek to put back the pieces of their often-shattered lives, then learn what the Kingdom is about and what it is not.

So, while it might not be a perfect document, the Belhar Confession goes a long ways in taking our discussions out of the ether of intellectual debate and into the stadium of messy reality. And messy reality is where real people live – real people with problems that have actionable solutions. Let us be inspired to go beyond talking, blogging, NPR-listening, singing and throwing youth groups at the poor.

Let’s build real cross-class relationships – the kind of relationships that end with your house, office and church having that same funky smell mine does.

And let’s do it for this reason:
“We believe that God is, in a special way, the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged and we believe that God calls the Church to follow Him in this.” (Belhar Confession, Article 4)

**The photos on this post are of actual homeless friends of mine. Cindy, in the 2nd picture, died of an overdose in the forest near our church (where she lived) recently.


3 thoughts on “Belhar Part III: Is Reformed Theology Bad News for the Poor?

  1. I will have to read this confession.

    You knocked this one out of the park! I actually went to Wheaton but have had a lot of my intelligence eaten away by mental illness and being poor and isolated. And reformed theology makes no sense to me, at least not existentially.

    The poor don’t need another sermon, they need a ride to the food pantry or to therapy. I wish more people got this message.

  2. I like this, but your history is sketchy. The early Reformed movements were most certainly among exiles, fugitives, prisoners, and beggars, You’re also mistaken about Eastern Europe. But apart from your exaggerations you are right in the main, I think, and you are echoing what Oepke Noordmans wrote in his famous essay “Zondaar en Bedelaar” (Sinner and Beggar), which you can find in the brand new book on Noordmans in the RCA Historical Series.

  3. I remember the first passage of the Belhar at General Synod, which gave it the movement to be presented to the classes. Even then, we weren’t sure if it was going to pass. And I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons why some objected to it so strongly was because it was going to make them deal with their, well, you know. It was gonna get real up in this joint. Now I pray that we use the Belhar as a call to action, and not just as a lovely figurehead.

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